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Francis, theological education and the public square


There is nothing quite so humbling as being a teacher. To have responsibility for the precious life of the minds of students is a sacred trust, to be honoured and treasured and never ever taken for granted. It is especially sacred for those of us entrusted with the academic and pastoral formation of seminary students.

What I gained from my own theological studies was of incalculable value as it enabled me to develop a deep and abiding assurance that radical activism, that speaking truth to power, that challenging injustice anywhere and everywhere, was mandatory — never optional!

The theological studies that enabled me to gain that perspective were those I undertook with my beloved Catholic colleagues in the 1990s all of whom were advocates and practitioners of liberation theology.

My academic guru's were Gutierrez, Sobrino, Boff, Friere, Segundo and Romero. All of these men from the early liberation theologian era were, in reality, activist academics. These were not outsiders pontificating upon the plight of the poor; they were embedded insiders crying out alongside those who through no fault of their own were destined to be the least among others in their societies.

As a young indigenous woman raised in a loving whanau or family environment where church mattered but wasn't especially responsive to the pressing issues arising from unchecked colonial imperialism, I found real spiritual solace and understanding in the critiques and subsequent exposures of structural injustice gifted to us by those early liberation theologians.

Instead of becoming incurably cynical and angry about the church as many young indigenous people understandably became, my theological insights enabled me to think more critically and strategically about how best to act against injustice.

Yet timing is so determinative: as it turned out, my own entry into the theological academy coincided with the Vatican's determination to disavow not only the Catholic Church but, indeed, theological thinkers of any denomination, of the credibility and thus the true worth of my treasured interlocutors.

And this is why my teachers became so special to me because they, like me, could make no sense of the official criticism and they, like me, saw only personal fear and power-laden hypocrisy behind the discrediting agenda.

As the first Maori person with academic credentials in theology and education and, later, with a PhD in theological education and race politics, my elders invested in me the tribal responsibility to represent and uphold indigenous interests in the theological academy.

As the first and only Maori academic theologian for the longest period of time, mine was inevitably to be a fraught pioneering journey. I worked for the next 25 or so years as a seminary teacher, and then as dean or principal within an Anglican theological college and, coincidentally, as a leader in ecumenical theological education, through my work with the World Council of Churches.

I have already 'confessed' my faith politics and these are in perfect alignment with my theological educational politics. I was and I remain convinced that all theological educators, irrespective of the denominational schools they represent, are responsible for preparing and enabling critical-thinking, faith-filled lay and ordained activists, capable of being God's missional people anywhere in the world.

And so it has been a source of immense frustration and grief for me to acknowledge that after almost 25 years of endeavouring to fulfill that very simple educational mandate I do not believe I came anywhere near succeeding.

This does not for a moment mean I feel I have failed. Rather it means that it took me some considerable time to recognise that my task was never meant to be an easy one. My vision was not shared vision by those who controlled my seminary; nor, as I was to discover to my enduring sadness, was it shared with very many involved in the leadership and administration of theological education globally.

I did not anticipate the underbelly politics of the theological academy. I did not anticipate that sexism, racism, clericalism and all of the related 'isms' were still alive and flourishing, even inside my beloved church's educational institutions. I did not expect to encounter resistance to the establishment of a curriculum and assessment processes unapologetically devoted to the pursuit of God's justice.

It was however my observation of the Vatican reaction to liberation theologians which gave me my first alert. For here were the power brokers of the Church acting to control the liberation theologians, whose ideas and imaginings were utterly unpalatable to leaders so comfortable with unfettered power and unused to empathising firsthand with the sufferings of the people.

Today I look back and ask myself did I really imagine my ideas and imaginings, my enthusiasm and determination to radicalise theological education were ever going to excite, inspire, enthuse, encourage, embolden those in power?

I believe there is still something seriously, systemically problematic about the way in which theological education is constituted and delivered.

I think there is something problematic about the internal politics of theological education as per the unquestioned power and control exercised by church leaders over most seminaries. I question too the insufficiently interrogated alliances between seminaries and secular universities. And most sadly of all I have had cause to question the seriousness of vocational call of many of my colleagues.

In my own denominational context, as I fought for the embedding of the theological educational priorities I believed were needed, I was eventually met with significant if not outright resistance at every turn, particularly from those with clerical authority. These were often leaders without credible theological educational credentials, or credible ministry credentials.

Then there were the tedious and predictable objectors, obstructers and obfuscators masquerading as church administrators, as members of governing bodies or as clerical overlords who thought I was variously too feminist, too Maori, too lay, too young, too gay friendly, too political.

Of course I was all of those things and proudly and confidently so, for in composite they form the unique individual God has called and blessed me to be.

I still wonder why God seems always to have found it necessary to so severely limit the numbers of women who look, think, act and speak like me in the theological academy and all aspects of church leadership. You can still count the numbers of senior women leaders in theological education across all denominational churches globally, knowing you will not get much past 30.

Yet while I have always been an avowed feminist, it has been my indigenous heart that has been most troubled, particularly in terms of the inexcusable under-representation of those women who are the least among all women globally.

And so some years ago now I decided to make it my priority to raise up young third world and indigenous women into positions of leadership both within the academy and in the Church. I began what remains a modest but 100 per cent successful mentoring program for young indigenous and third world woman to complete PhD qualifications in education, theology and leadership.

Was there a resounding alleluia chorus in response to my program and its appeal for credible gender and racial diversity in the theological academy, the wider church and or the secular university? Not exactly. But what about in 2015?

It is at this point that I get to my almost inexpressible gratitude to Pope Francis. Singlehandedly, this extraordinary man of God has shifted the discourse from 'Why?' to 'Why not?'; from 'No' to 'Maybe we need to think again about this matter more compassionately'; from 'I know this is important, but … ' to 'This cannot wait. Our Christian duty is to act now.'

All of the pressing matters affecting all of God's magnificent creation are now not only firmly back on the church's agenda, but they are out there in the public square, daring us to defy their critical importance, urging the world at large to participate in the healing of the planet and of all who are blessed to live upon it.

Climate change, poverty and economic injustice, the common good, the human rights of gay and lesbian people, unjust war, the status of women, the remarriage of divorced people, the rights of indigenous peoples — surely all of these things and so many more are the essential basis of any self-respecting, critical-thinking-based theological curriculum.

To enfold all of this within the essential theological framework of God's mercy, the church's moral teachings, kindness, compassion and humility would be such an intellectual and spiritual gift of incalculable value for any student of theology.

I believe with all my heart that all of this is now made imminently possible as a result of the extraordinary public witness in the ministry of Pope Francis. He is a leader who is not simply doing but being God's work.

As Pope Francis' magnificent public ministry evolves, my theological educator heart has been stirred by hope beyond imagining, for here at last is an authorising, encouraging and enabling voice.

Here by his lived example is a humble, prophetic church leader whose life and witness invites our theological and church schools to rethink, recalibrate, reform, revise and renew curriculum, pedagogy and context.

Here is a humble, prophetic church leader whose public life of devoted servitude provides an exemplary template for those offering themselves to be servant leaders for the church in future.

At this time I have one enduring hope and that is that all of our seminaries, universities, theological colleges and schools might take very seriously both the unavoidable challenge and magnificent invitation that Francis' ministry provides.

The vision I have for these educational systems is that they be not merely transformed, but transfigured — in the words of Paulo Freire, that they experience a change of consciousness that is achieved through 'dying to the current reality and being resurrected on the side of the oppressed or by being born again with the beings who are not allowed to be'.

It is true that the new educational paradigm will almost certainly undermine the existing hierarchies of legitimated expertise. And so it must. Those of us who are teachers and leaders must never be exempt from any of the extant challenges so eloquently laid out by Francis. Our hands and feet are always in need of being reconsecrated for the work of making all things on earth as they are in heaven.

The new paradigm I am advocating draws on a variety of theological traditions in its unequivocal assertion that the greatest among us must become servant of all. This is entirely in line with the only direct reference Francis makes in his encyclical Laudato Si' to theological education: 'It is my hope that our seminaries and houses of formation will provide an education in responsible simplicity of life, in grateful contemplation of God's world, and in concern for the needs of the poor and the protection of the environment.'

The mission field for which the people of God are responsible is where we find the least among us struggling daily for the mere necessities of life. It is where the scale of human injustice is matched by the unconscionable scale of human indifference from those whose lives are characterised by sufficiency. It is here in the brokenness and injustice of human existence that we must discern and teach of theologically informed solutions for pressing political problems.

Are we, as those baptised and blessed into lay or ordained ministries, intimately acquainted with the underside of our communities — as radical agents for change, as insiders within underside communities, and not as occasional well-meaning outsider cross-bearing voyeurs?

Are we as those called, commissioned and blessed into ministries of teaching, capable of and willing to teach and learn in the social and economic underside of our communities and societies? And by this I mean as educators are we open to radically disrupting and relocating our traditional classrooms, our traditional practices of 'education', our traditional understandings of what counts as knowledge, our highly prized subjectivist idealism, which so neatly serves to preserve the institutional status quo?

We speak often of a 'common world' but what is it that we really share in common with the 'too many poor', with those who suffer the terror of armed conflict, the horror of political or religious oppression, the debasement of being trafficked for sex, the ignominy of being exploited or enslaved as cheap human labour, the outrage of being unlawfully detained, the inexpressible grief of being so cruelly politically divided from those one loves?

Have we genuinely the intellectual will and moral courage necessary to identify the deep causes of the global threats to human rights and thus to human freedom and to teach of these things and to be taught by those whose lives are daily demarcated by these things?

Have we the critical capacity and the institutional will to work with others, particularly with those at the front lines of experience toward concretely eliminating the causes of human suffering locally and globally?

I spoke earlier of my own experience of being marginalised, ignored, rendered invisible in my own schooling experiences, and also mentioned the unfathomable and unacceptable deficit of professors who look, speak and act like me.

Let us not overlook the fact that within our beloved institutions of both church and educational importance we must constantly marshal both the determination and the critical insight needed to create such conditions that preclude educational injustice, inequity, outright racism, sexism, clericalism ever again occurring.

Have we the faith filled passion for God's justice that our students rightly expect us to have? And beyond them, have we the faith filled passion for God's justice that those like my historically disenfranchised indigenous relatives so desperately and determinedly saw as their only real hope?

Or are we essentially ivory-tower educators who know only too well how to objectify the distressing experiences of others but have never really thought about how to draw those from the mission fields of suffering into the ivory tower, where they, as partners, could well assist in subjectifying those same experiences in their own languages?

For unless we are able to answer most of these questions in the affirmative then I want to respectfully and confidently suggest that our integrity as transformative theological educators is called in to question, and therefore the transfiguring project toward which we now aspire is rendered somewhat uncertain.

We cannot imagine ourselves working toward the nurturing of prophetic voices for the public square from a position of educational stasis. I am with Freire when he insists that, 'Education itself must be an instrument of transforming action, a political praxis at the service of permanent human liberation. This does not happen only in the consciousness of people but it presupposes a radical change of structures, in which process consciousness itself will be transformed'.

Thank you Pope Francis, for although you have not spoken at any length about theological education per se any more than you have spoken about the status of women per se, I want to reassure you that in spite of these somewhat startling omissions — which I am sure you will soon get around to addressing more fulsomely and lovingly — this indigenous lay woman theological educator feels no less inspired, comforted, reassured, blessed, beyond imagining by your gentle, wise, insistent and prophetic urgings of us all to just be there in the public sphere.

Jenny Te PaaDr Jenny Te Paa is an Anglican theologian and Maori woman. This is the edited text from her keynote address to Australian Catholic University's 'Pope Francis and other Prophetic Voices' conference in Melbourne in September.

Topic tags: Jenny Te Paa, Pope Francis, theological education



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bIt is true Saint John Paul slammed aspects of liberation theology, and faced down that blasphemous Sandanista performance at Nicaraguan Mass., In fact, the Saint enacted an authentic liberation from "leaders so comfortable with unfettered power and unused to empathising first hand with the sufferings of the people." Such papal liberation activism made liberation theologians appear downright paraplegic compared with JP2 activism that kickstarted the crash of that most unfettered power of all time-the Soviet empire. [JP2 role corroborated by Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev and polish communist President Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski.] No doubt Jenny Te Paa noted in Phd research that "In 1985, the KGB-managed World Council of Churches elected its first general secretary who was an avowed Marxist: Emilio Castro. He had been exiled from Uruguay because of his political extremism, but he managed the WCC until 1992. Castro strongly promoted the KGB-created liberation theology,"[JP2 was well aware of KGB tactics re lliberation theology] The KGB had a penchant for “liberation” movements. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the National Liberation Army of Columbia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army of Bolivia were just a few of the “liberation” movements born at the KGB. Pacepa, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai; Rychlak, Ronald (2013-06-25). Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism (pp. 102-103). WND Books.

Father John George | 12 October 2015  

I think the great thing about Pope Francis, unlike the 'professional clerics' you mention in your excellent article Jenny, is that he is genuinely liberated within himself. He is someone who has grown up spiritually and emotionally. The problem with the Church is that it often turns out grossly distorted patho-Christians. The late, saintly Michel Quoist called them 'monsters'. I have seen so many, both professional clerics and laypeople. The irony is that they have blinkered vision and think they are doing a great job. They need to be gently disabused. Francis does that effectively and without malice. He has genuine authority. I think it is fortuitous that, in these times, he is here, not just for the Church, but for the whole world. He doesn't preach peace: he is peace. As you know, the Church in Australasia and the world needs a lift. I think he might just give it that. It is not before time.

Edward Fido | 12 October 2015  

Amen to that, Jenny.. I wish I'd been at the conference to hear you deliver your impressive speech. Bless you.

Patricia Taylor | 15 October 2015  

Thank you for such an eloquent plea to all Christian educators; I have often read inspiring pieces in Eureka Street but this is the first one that so moved me that I had to for the first time write a comment! I pray that all of us can act upon it but especially those "entrusted with the academic and pastoral formation of seminary students".

Tony Hamilton | 15 October 2015  

Thank you for this article, Jenny. I found it encouraging and inspiring. I hope to read more of your work.

Michele Purcell | 15 October 2015  

Wonderful commentary Jenny! Your insight is uplifting and reassures your readers in remaining hopeful that the hierarchy may eventually become relevant to today's world and its people.

Helen Halpin | 15 October 2015  

"...are we essentially ivory-tower educators who know only too well how to objectify the distressing experiences of others but have never really thought about how to draw those from the mission fields of suffering into the ivory tower, where they, as partners, could well assist in subjectifying those same experiences in their own languages?" Great question! As a theological student I bear witness to this all the time and have great difficulty with the "hypothetical" nature of discussion because I've come out of the land of great struggle (as a woman, encountering poverty, dis-homed, dis-employed, single parent etc .etc.) ... the pearl of which is hard-earned wisdom. I've seen a world that privatises wealth and hands poverty and social ills into the public domain. Such a pathology is not sustainable. By keeping silent the voices of both experience and mission, theological pedagogy will always remain a theoretical, intellectual exercise in big and difficult words that are empty of meaning and purpose. We need both (at least) intelligences in dialogue with each other to enculturate the Christian message of faith, hope and love ...

mary tehan | 15 October 2015  

Thank you so much for such a heartfelt cry for an honest change in perspective. I am so encouraged by your words.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 15 October 2015  

The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

AO | 15 October 2015  

Father John George, the connection between the KGB and liberation theology you mentioned has been totally refuted as a cold wart conspiracy theory. The cold war is over and there's been no Marxist revolution in Latin America. But earlier this year Pope Francis invited Gustavo Gutiérrez to Rome to speak at an event,

AURELIUS | 15 October 2015  

Pope Francis, supported by Cardinal Gerhard Mueller of the CDF, has restored equilibrium to Catholic social teaching. The Theology of Liberation taught by Fr Gustavo Gutierrez OP became the centre piece of CELAM's social doctrine since 1968 and has informed the theology of Latina America since then. This theology is at the core of the Aparecida Document of 2007, redacted by Cardinal Bergoglio, overwhelmingly approved by CELAM and warmly endorsed by Benedict XVI. The doctrine of Aparecida formed the basis of Jorge Bergoglio's address to the pre-Conclave Congregations of Cardinals in 2013 and later became the subtext for Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si. John George is talking through his hat.

David Timbs | 16 October 2015  

I love your articulation of belief in our human capacity and passion for God's kindom to come among us and recognition of Francis' truth and way forward in Laudate Si!

Marie Bourke FMDM | 17 October 2015  

Any "self-respecting critical-thinking-based theological curriculum" will have a contemplative orientation that recognizes both the self-revelation and the mysteriousness of its subject,God. It will also value the disinteredness of philosophy as an instrument for evaluating praxis.

John | 19 October 2015  

Jenny, I keep a folder on my I-pad captioned INSPIRATIONAL. Your article is very deservedly included.

John Casey | 29 October 2015  

A belated reply to Mr Timbs re 'FrJG talking through his biretta' My post had highlighted the most rocky evolution of lib theol from Marxist influences; add opposition from Bergoglio in the 70s and trenchant opposition from Ratzinger in early 80s-before the final slow redactions and nuanced endorsement "In 1984, it was reported that a meeting occurred between the CDF and the CELAM bishops, during which a rift developed between Ratzinger and some of the bishops, with Ratzinger issuing official condemnations of certain elements of liberation theology."[A necessary historical evolution of lib theol isthe antithesis of unnuanced naive embracing of same! "Blase Bonpane, a former Maryknoll father and founding director of the Office of the Americas, said "The new pope has not been comfortable with liberation theology".[39]" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberation_theology

Father John George | 11 November 2015  

An awe inspired discourse for me. My theological interest is great, my education minimal and a little old for PHD. But I encourage those younger to do so.

Mary | 04 March 2016